To celebrate Latinx Heritage Month, NPR Music is highlighting a series of artists across Latin America who are engaging with their musical heritage in unique ways. From reworking conservative genres for new eras to unraveling modern sounds from old-school instruments, these artists represent the wide range of experimentation that makes up contemporary Latin music.
In some parts of Brazil, it is almost impossible to escape the noise of sertanejo. Deep in the countryside, in the small towns that line soybean farms and endless stretches of land, you won’t find bikinis, coconut water or samba for miles around. This is the land of country music and cowboy hats. “It doesn’t matter where you are – any bar or dive restaurant will play it,” says singer Gabeu, who grew up in Franca, a small town in São Paulo state. “That or a duo will perform sertanejo songs live.”
Mixing elements of rock, pop and forum, the melodic genre is often presented as the Brazilian alternative to American country music. But it’s also more complicated than that. “Unlike country, sertanejo is distinctly Latin American,” says Gabeu, speaking via Zoom from his living room couch in São Paulo. “He is inspired by the Paraguayan genres [such as the guaranía or the polka], for example. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to fully explain what it is. What is certain, however, is that it is the most important genre in the country. Consistently topping national charts, sertanejo is an increasingly popular and lucrative industry. Last year, 60% of the top hits broadcast on Brazilian radio fell within the genre.
Part of what makes the genre so successful is that its artists are dead serious. It is common in the sertanejo for musicians in love to sing about longing and grief – experiences that people often identify with. But not everyone can see themselves in these stories. Growing up, Gabeu, the son of the famous artist sertanejo Solimões, could never understand the straight and heteronormative ballads that surrounded him. So on his first album of 2021 AGROPOC, who earned a Latin Grammy nomination this year for Best Sertaneja Music Album, he set out to change that by singing about the search for queer love in the country’s largely conservative heartland. Part of a new scene called “queernejo”, Gabeu, 24, is part of a group of artists who are leading the charge in creating a new kind of sertanejo – one that makes space for more of a type of love story.
It starts by flipping the image of the macho cowboy on its head. As far as Gabeu can remember, sertanejo singers have been straight. And while they may not look exactly like they did in the 90s anymore – women, for example, now hold a growing interest in gender – conventional gender stereotypes and the heteronormativity still loom large. “Nowadays the look can feel more modern for men, it’s more polo shirts and jeans, less traditional,” says Gabeu. “Maybe a cowboy hat or a big belt buckle once in a while.” But, at its core, the genre’s relationship to traditional genre dynamics and aesthetics has remained largely the same, he explains.
Gabeu started feeling like the odd one out in his town when he was a teenager. The more time he spent attending sertanejo performances and drinking in the barzinhos around town, the more he realized that these spaces weren’t meant for him. “I was starting to understand my sexuality and I just couldn’t see myself in it,” Gabeu says, running a hand through his fire-colored cropped hair. “That’s where I started listening to American pop.” Finding Lady Gaga helped. “I loved all the divas, but she was the main one for me,” he adds with a laugh. “At one point, I was really this annoying fan.”
Leaving Franca to study cinema in São Paulo was another turning point. “While I was there, I got to know queer artists who dared to try genres that weren’t pop: people from lower-income neighborhoods doing hip-hop, queer musicians from the north is who were doing brega funk“, an energetic style of dance music born in Recife, Brazil. It soon became clear that if they could do it, he could do it too.
In Gabeu’s eyes, the sertanejo has everything to gain from mixing with other genres, from pop to American country to tecno brega. “I wanted AGROPOC be playful,” he says. “Each song points in a different direction. love in the dark?” he asks in the track “Amor Rural” over a hoarse guitar hit. “Every room in this farmhouse hides the truth.”
AGROPOC opens with a fake radio message broadcast in an imaginary world. “This is AGROPOCthe most popular sertanejo radio station in the country,” says Gabeu in the first track. It’s wishful thinking, he told me, but not necessarily impossible. In 2020, Gabeu and non-binary sertanejo artist Gali Galó launched the country’s first queernejo music. festival, Fivela Fest. Combining live performances and lectures, it aimed to bring the genre to a wider audience. “People like Alice Marcone, Reddy Allor and Zerzil have performed,” says Gabeu. “It wasn’t very popular, but we managed to reach our audience.”
For Gabeu, it is impossible to separate the beginning of queernejo from the broader political situation in Brazil. Over the past four years, a remarkable number of sertanejo artists have spoken out in favor of Brazil’s far-right, anti-LGBTQ+ president, Jair Bolsonaro. “It really bothered me,” says Gabeu.
It was also about what the president meant to Gabeu. “I remember having a horrible experience when Bolsonaro was elected at a Shania Twain concert in Barretos.” During the show, Twain invited a gay couple on stage and one of them proposed. “I’ve never heard so many boos in my life,” says the artist.
In some ways, gender support for the president is still ongoing. In 2018, prominent artist Gusttavo Lima declared his support for the president in a video in which he is seen firing a gun. Ahead of the October 2 presidential election, the duo Mateus e Cristiano released a jingle for Bolsonaro’s campaign.
However, the scene changes. “In a way, queernejo was born out of this gigantic need to redefine the relationship of gender with bolsonarism“, says Gabeu. “That’s also why we try to recover symbols too, even when it may seem that we are relying on stereotypes: I want people to look at a cowboy hat and not see a supporter of Bolsonaro.”
It sounds like a distant reality, but recent strides made by queer country artists in North America such as Orville Peck, whose song “Dead of Night” marked a much-discussed scene on the hit HBO series Euphoria this year, give him hope. For Gabeu, there is no reason why queernejo cannot one day enter the Brazilian mainstream in the same way.
For now, however, his focus is on gay Brazilians who, like him, grew up thinking the sertanejo wasn’t for them. “There are so many people in the LGBTQ+ community who live in the countryside,” he says. “Is it crazy to think that this is the first time they can see and hear each other in the genre?” Not surprisingly, many feel inclined to change radio stations when the sertanejo is playing. But if they hear a queernejo song instead, they might be inclined to keep listening.
Carolina Abbott Galvão is a researcher at Monocle magazine. She also wrote for The New York Times, The Guardian and Refinery 29among others.
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